House advancing redistricting process bill opposed by Galvin

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – With deadlines closing in, the House on Wednesday advanced a controversial redistricting timeline shuffle and a mid-year spending plan that creates a permanent board of directors for the MBTA.

The House gave initial approval to its versions of a policy-laden supplemental budget (H 3863) and a bill allowing the Legislature to redraw state and federal districts before cities and towns adjust local precincts (H 3862). Both bills are teed up for votes at a Thursday formal session.

Lawmakers are aiming to swap the order of operations in the decennial redistricting and reprecincting process in the wake of pandemic-fueled delays in delivery of U.S. Census population data, in the process drawing vocal opposition from the state’s chief elections officer.

Municipalities typically update their voting precincts based on population counts every decade, and the Legislature then uses those building blocks to draw state and federal districts. Under existing law, cities and towns must redraw local precinct boundaries by June 15, but this year that date falls more than three months before the U.S. Census Bureau expects local population data to be fully delivered.

The legislation that emerged from the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday — two days after the Election Laws Committee heard testimony on it — would remove that impending deadline and let the Legislature to redraw state and federal districts without the updated local precinct data.

Once the governor approves the new maps, cities and towns would have 30 days to complete their precincts, which must be done by Dec. 15. The changes would only apply to the current decennial redistricting process.

A coalition of voting rights advocates endorsed the move, telling lawmakers that using Census tracts and blocks rather than subdividing local precincts would allow the Legislature’s Redistricting Committee to create more equally sized and cohesive districts.

But the House’s move puts it at odds with Secretary of State William Galvin, who on Monday said the bill would be “devastating” to cities and towns and indicated he would urge Gov. Charlie Baker to veto the measure if it reaches him.

“Have there been new ethnic communities come in? Have there been changes? Is there new construction? Are there new factors? Local governments are best able to deal with this,” Galvin told the Election Laws Committee.

The House also advanced its Ways and Means Committee’s rewrite of a supplemental budget Baker filed in May, targeting action to create a successor MBTA board, finance the new policing reform and accountability law, and allow the administration to use 2020 MCAS rankings to determine which districts fall into the bottom 10 percent of performance in fiscal years 2021 and 2022.

The committee’s supplemental budget (H 3773) has a bottom line of about $257 million, less than the $273 million in the version Baker filed in May. Most of the spending would be covered by federal COVID-19 relief, and the House Ways and Means Committee bill carries a net cost to the state of $59.8 million, according to a Michlewitz aide.

Baker proposed creation of a seven-member MBTA board of directors, which would replace the existing five-member Fiscal and Management Control Board whose statutory authority is set to expire at the end of the month.

Both the governor and House suggested a new seven-member panel that includes the secretary of transportation as an ex officio member and one seat that would be appointed by the MBTA Advisory Board, an independent group representing the interests of the 176 cities and towns who direct their tax dollars to the transit agency.

Unlike Baker, the House would include a dedicated role for labor interests on the renamed MBTA Board of Directors, requiring one gubernatorial appointee from a list of three finalists recommended by the president of the AFL-CIO.

MBTA oversight historically fell to the broader Department of Transportation Board of Directors. In response to the disastrous winter of 2015, Baker and the Legislature convened the FMCB to focus on myriad needs at the T, originally giving it a three-year term before extending it another two years.

Amid a push for a permanent successor board, the Legislature opted at the 11th hour last summer to extend the FMCB one additional year.

The spending bill would also direct $131 million toward a program to stabilize the early education and care workforce after providers faced upheaval due to COVID-19, and direct about $16.4 million to reserve accounts to help launch the new Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission and implement other aspects of a police reform law.

Other spending recommendations include $31.9 million to the Medical Assistance Trust Fund, $27.8 million in a grant payment to the Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) cash assistance program, and $7.2 million for public health hospitals.

House Democratic leaders intend to bring the bills up for a vote in a Thursday formal session, according to House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Aaron Michlewitz’s office.

The timeline is less clear in the Senate. A spokesperson for Senate President Karen Spilka said “the only item on the docket” for Thursday’s session is legislation to extend some COVID-era policies such as remote public meetings and cocktails to-go.

If the Senate decides not to consider the redistricting bill on Thursday and adjourns until next week as is common practice, the next time the legislation could come up would be Monday, just one day before the statutory precinct-drawing deadline that the legislation aims to scrap.

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